Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports | World

August 18, 2008

Beijing in August

Residents of the city aren't that excited about the Games themselves, but they're ecstatic about what the Olympics represents for China.

Sebastian Cohen

Twenty years ago, the Chinese thought every American was a millionaire. This notion was plainly illustrated by the country's entry requirements, as anyone blessed with a bald eagle on his passport was ushered right in, socks and sandals be damned. These days, however, it seems American privilege may have come to a not-so-happy ending: our tourists now must pass through the same visa rigmarole as everyone else. China is now dealing with us, and all of the other great powers of the world, on its own terms.

Fans at the US-China Olympic Basketball Game. Image courtesy of kk+'s flickr stream.
"Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that that game was being held in LA, as the huge crowd cheered at every spectacular dunk slammed against the home team."

Fans at the US-China Olympic Basketball Game. Image courtesy of kk+'s flickr stream.

Fashioning Beijing into world-class city is one step towards to that end. Chinese leaders—who by necessity must live in the capital—see this as a practical goal in itself, and have been bringing anti-pollution initiatives to Beijing while sending unsightly and uncomfortable industries to the periphery. The Olympics can be seen as a test run. So can the visa restrictions.

As any citizen of downtown Barcelona, Atlanta, or Athens can attest, the Olympic footprint lasts far longer than a few weeks in August. From the ground in Beijing, you can see a city transformed. Architecturally, Beijing has become a quixotic—some might say schizophrenic—mix of styles ranging from traditional Imperial gardens and city gates to drab Soviet-style block housing, all the way to the paragons of modern "concept" architecture. The new CCTV Headquarters, the "Cube" swimming center, and the "Bird's Nest" stadium all look like structures out of a science fiction movie. Several new subway lines have appeared.

While the Olympics provided a nice deadline for finishing construction, the burst of activity is about much more than the games. What people are seeing is the ambitious plan to reinvent northern China. The last twenty years have favored the south, where the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Zhejiang, as well as the city of Shanghai, have all seen massive gains in infrastructure and incomes. It only took a decade for skyscrapers to sprout from turnip fields in the Pudong Special Economic Zone, which sits across the river from Shanghai. Now it's the north's turn.

Beijing has been emptied, certain venues and restaurants have been closed or renovated, and street food has been swept out to the suburbs. In an attempt to make the city literally greener, large potted plants and flower arrangements have been laid around the city and cleaners have gone into overdrive in ensuring there's no unsightly litter near Olympic venues. Still, preparations haven't been limited to this traditional dance required of host cities: half of the cars in the city have been banned from the road on alternating days, and special Olympic traffic lanes have been designated for official use. Beijing's notorious congestion is a shadow of its former self. To help visitors overcome the linguistic hurdles of navigating Beijing, volunteer booths have sprung up around the city, where young people wearing blue shirts chat between rounds of assisting tourists and putting up newspaper clippings of the most recent Chinese medal winners.

Image Description

Photo of the "Cube" swimming center by Christian Reich Kramer

Residents of Beijing seem resigned, if not willing, to suffer any inconveniences, viewing them as part of a larger goal. "Yes, I want to return to my routine," 23 year old Liu Meng* tells me. "But it is only two weeks and it means a lot for China's image abroad, so I support the games." Indeed, Beijing has gone from a global backwater to a global center in a few short years. The eastern part of the city now plays host to those most postindustrial of labors: PR, finance, and logistics firms. Hi-tech companies occupy the northwestern University District. In fact, a recent Pew Survey of 24 countries found that the Chinese ranked number one in terms of "national contentment."

While polls—especially in China—can be unreliable, anecdotal evidence seems to reinforce the image of an increasingly optimistic population. Chinese college students still apply to universities abroad in ever-increasing numbers, but their stated goal is more likely to return to China, where foreign education and mastery of English will give them a leg up in an increasingly competitive job market. One Olympics volunteer, who gave her name as Wu Ming*, said, "I want to study abroad so that I can expand my horizons and help China be a strong player in the world." When asked if she would like to return to China after her studies she smiled and said, "Of course!"

Even though residents are proud of the rapid modernization of their city and fact that the Olympics mean the world's attention will finally be focused on it, few actually seem excited about the games themselves. Asked if he had any plans to attend Olympic events, Meng responded that he did not and that he planned to leave Beijing to visit with family during the second week of the games. Many offices in Beijing have closed for the duration of the Olympics, giving people two weeks of vacation, and many have used this as an opportunity to escape the stifling heat of Beijing in August.

What kind of city they will return to is anybody's guess. What is clear is that new visa restrictions won't keep students and businessmen from coming to China any more than those same restrictions keep Chinese from traveling abroad, and the fascination by both parties is only growing. More than anything else, the opening US vs. China basketball game highlighted this. Though most Olympic events have suffered from low attendance, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that that basketball game was being held in Los Angeles, as the huge crowd cheered at every spectacular dunk slammed against the home team. The NBA is huge in China, and Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are household names. The image of a Lakers jersey-clad Chinese fan waving his national flag epitomizes the confusion most foreign observers—and perhaps even the Chinese themselves—feel in this place, the oldest and newest country in the world.

*At the request of interviewees their real names were not used, Wu Ming sounds phonetically like "No name" and Liu Meng roughly translates to "Joe Blow" in English.

Sebastian Cohen

Sebastian Cohen is a language junkie in Beijing.

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Article by Sebastian Cohen

Sebastian Cohen is a language junkie in Beijing.

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